Black Joe Lewis on Austin’s Segregated Music Scene and ‘Backlash’

Black Joe Lewis '16

Black Joe Lewis. Motormouth Media

Austin’s Black Joe Lewis makes the kind of urgent, unrestrained music that you just don’t hear anymore.

His is an energy that lives in the air and on the stage before being conceived in a studio, producing songs that couldn’t have come from someone who didn’t have to bust their ass to get there. And Lewis’ story of picking up a guitar one day while working in a pawn shop is hallowed in the circles who know him because it tells us a true outsider origin, wherein grit and candid truths are not held back by business relationships or any board room meddling.

Over the last 10 years, Lewis and his band The Honeybears first carved a space for themselves in Austin’s vast music scene, befriending fellow Austinites Spoon and going on tour with them in 2007 before becoming the darlings of the same local press that hadn’t even heard of them before. And after abandoning the “Honeybears” name for 2013’s Electric Slave, Lewis is back at it this month with new album Backlash, howling his guttural, unrestrained odes to love, sex and drinking with all the feelings of otherness he’s been collecting in his years away from the stage.

I caught up with Lewis over the phone recently for a candid chat that sought to unpack why his music owes as much to the punks as it does to the storied bluesmen. We talked about Austin’s segregated music scene, the trouble with people watching, and Lewis’ sleep paralyses dreams that seem all too real. A city that’s changing at Austin’s pace needs cultural critics—may men like Lewis who got there on their own gumption always be the first ones to fill that role.

So “PTP,” is it “pay to play,” “person to person,” “power to the people”? You asked your Twitter followers what it meant, have they figured it out yet?

Ah dude, my cousin Tiffany, she’s a pretty good talker and she came up with these crazy ass terms her friends use or whatever. “PTP” was the “power to pussy,” they be talkin’ about that whenever they got some shit, you know? “Power to pussy”—you can start a war with it, a weapon of mass destruction.

So prescient though, you wrote this song obviously before all the election drama and recent normalization of the word “pussy” in the nightly news.

Yeah, that’s right! I should talk about that more.

There’s this clip of you driving around Austin in the Echotone documentary from a few years ago, talking about Austin’s expansion and the new condos. You say you’re considering dating a girl who lives in one of them so you can become a trophy husband. 

[Laughs] That movie was four or five years ago, so now the condos are all up, and they’re still building them. I think there’s people’s livin’ in ’em.

I had a bleeding heart ex-girlfriend who moved out to Austin from New York to find herself, and she didn’t realize you need a car in Austin.

You’re in Texas here, man. Texas is a piece of shit! At least in New York you got diversity—out here it’s still really segregated, and there’s definitely an arts scene but there’s no black people in Austin.

Well how many different blues singers have you been compared to?

Oh yeah, I’ve actually joked around with Gary Clark Jr. about that. When his first record came out people would say, “I saw you over at the whatever.” And I’d say, “You’re thinking about Gary, dude.” People would always try to compare me and Gary. Because we’re the two black guys in town playing guitars, we automatically have to be compared or some shit. We know who each other are, but he’s definitely more involved with the blues scene. I used to play in punk bars a lot.

“So they come over here, go to the thrift store and get some old, beat up shit while their parents are paying their rent, but then they say they’re so broke. Well how do you afford your spot? I don’t see you go to work. It’s fine, and I ain’t got nothin’ against that, but stop frontin’.”—Black Joe Lewis

I think you told L.A. Weekly that your favorite band was Rocket From The Tombs. It’s funny to think of post-punk in the context of your music at first because it sounds like such a left turn. Where can we hear the crust on Backlash?

All of it. If you bake a cake I guess you’ve gotta have flour.

So the punk’s the flour.

Some of it, the powder and some shit.

Who are the shadow people and what do they want?

You ever had the sleep paralyses dreams? When I was couch surfin’ back in the day, man, I woke up from sleepin’ in my friend’s office and this bum came in to the room with a cane, one eye and shit. I was on the couch and he came in my room, started going through all my shit and saw me watchin’ him, you know? He goes, “What are you gonna do about it? You ain’t gonna do shit!” and I tried to get up to get him but I couldn’t get up. Then he stole a bunch of my shit, spit in my face and headed toward the door. I jumped up off of the couch, my friend was sitting there with his wife and I was like, “oh man.”

But it seems like this actually happens to you a lot, weird people do seem to find you. You told the lady on KEXP that you were in a Seattle bar and these two old women just started beating the shit out of each other right next to you. Do these shadow people kind of find you, or maybe you put out an energy with your presence that makes them receptive to you?

Yeah, everybody’s fuckin’ crazy, honestly. Maybe they come after me because I’m always people watching, they see you lookin’ at ’em and want some fuckin’ attention? I don’t fuckin’ know. I guess that’s what happens when you’re on the road, you’re by yourself holdin’ onto your own thing, hittin’ bars on a Monday night when the hardcore lushies are out. You put yourself in that position. [Laughs]

There may be something to that. All this shit’s always happening around us but we don’t pay attention to it, and when we people watch we slow down to notice it more. You’ve also been treated as an “outsider” musician for all these years, with your story of picking up a guitar at that pawn shop you worked at and learning as you went along. For all it’s changing demographics and scenes, do you think Austin’s been good for giving you a scene to come up in?

I just had to go for it, because like you said, when I came out I was new at it, dude. I was just figuring it out. A lot of people around here were like, “who the fuck is this guy,” all these South Austin cats and shit. And there’s a couple cool dudes in the punk scene, like Walter Daniels, who played with me and shit.

Well could it have had something to do with how few black people there are down there? Even your chosen stage name has some subversive element in this scene, punk in spirit.

Yeah, when that band Black Pussy came around there was this big thread goin’ around online about band names, asking “what’s racism?” and throwin’ my name in there.

How did you guys first link up with Spoon?

We had a residency at Beauty Bar. My buddy Jason Reece, he used to be in Trail of Dead and used to own that, and I guess he’s friends with Britt [Daniel, of Spoon] or whatever. He was there and saw the show, then we got a call to open for Spoon at Mohawk. Then not long after that, we got another call to go do a week run with ’em on the West Coast. That was our first tour, and through that we got a booking agent, all kinds of shit came out of that for us, then we came back home. Everybody’s gotta be told what to like nowadays, ain’t nobody can find shit on their own. So when we got back we got a lot more attention with the papers, and that’s when we met [Jim] Eno [of Spoon]. He did our first two records over at his spot.

Your song “Hipster” comes to mind with your comment about people needing to be told what to like. They’re bad here but I can only imagine how bad they are in Austin.

Oh, dude. I don’t wanna talk too much shit, but there’s a lot of people who come from the Woodlands and Highland Park, and that’s where fuckin’ Dick Cheney lives, you know what I mean? All those guys. Jerry Jones lives there. Fuck that! So they come over here, go to the thrift store and get some old, beat-up shit while their parents are paying their rent, but then they say they’re so broke. Well how do you afford your spot? I don’t see you go to work. It’s fine, and I ain’t got nothin’ against that, but stop frontin’.

Well you’re making it for yourself with a grind and a work ethic, that seems way more emblematic of what put Austin on the map in the first place as a music town. And it’s contrary to the recent story of bands that just pop up now, 16-year-old kids that will start playing here with really killer gear, really nice Moogs and Rikenbackers and shit. There’s no way they bought all that themselves.

Those are the guys that can play, though, because they come from an artistic family, which is badasss. I wish I did. Nobody put a guitar in my hand. My mom’s like, “go get a job, boy!” and then after I did somethin’ it’s all good. They just want you to do good.

“I’m not a big Drake fan because it’s like, why you try’na be hard when you used to be child actor, dude? You don’t fuckin’ get it. You gotta be out there singin’ R&B or summin, man, you can’t be out here talkin’ about thugs and shit. You don’t fuckin’ know.”

Those kids who get things to them fast and easily though, they don’t have those years in the dregs or in the shit, and those years are kind of important if you want to connect with everyone, not just rich kids.

Definitely. It’s like with rap—I’m not a big Drake fan because it’s like, why you try’na be hard when you used to be child actor, dude? You don’t fuckin’ get it. You gotta be out there singin’ R&B or summin, man, you can’t be out here talkin’ about thugs and shit. You don’t fuckin’ know.

Well who’s really getting it now in hip-hop?

When I was a kid I listened to all the big shit, like Tupac. But some of the lesser known stuff… my favorite group was 8 Ball and MJG. I spin Memphis Rap a lot, Three Six [Mafia] and all that. Big Scarface fan. All the [Houston] screw shit, The Color Changin’ Click, they got a little wild with it or whatever, a little too commercialized. But right now there’s a hip hop scene here, I’m just not really tuned into it.

One of the main groups is Riders Against the Storm, a male/female duo, more hip-hop than rap, feelgood shit. They’re one of the few though, because whenever I see a good act they’re usually playing. There’s a chick named Diva around here that I like a lot, she spits some hard shit. She’s the best rapper I’ve seen around here. She’s from Oakland, though.

How do keep discovering new music in a city that’s demographics are changing so much? You’re talking about these kids coming in from white suburbs and cornpone towns to find themselves or get some cultural currency?

There’s so much shit goin’ on here, all you really gotta do is go out, stick your head in the door. There’s this weird culture in Austin now where nobody wants to pay cover, but cover will be like $5. I’m like, “If you ain’t got $5 you should stay home, man. Worry about payin’ your bills, dude.” But there’s not a whole lot of that grit goin’ around right now, and I know there’s dudes that can do it. I just think that the rappers around here don’t know how to put themselves out there. Rock bands go book shows. I try to tell hip-hop cats when I see em. Just book shows, man.

Black Joe Lewis on Austin’s Segregated Music Scene and ‘Backlash’